Sunday, December 26, 2010

Holiday Memories: Childhood in the 1970s Part 12


My memories are as perceptual and as sensory, indeed sensual, as my current disposition. Before thought or even feeling can intrude to color my perceptions there is first and above all the sensation that enters my nervous system. And in the late 1970s there were plenty of impressions that could be most overwhelming.

Some of these sensations and impressions came in the form of quite odd characters. I had no idea where they came from or why they would come over for the holidays. It was not clear that they were close friends of the family; what was clear was that they appeared to be friends of the theater types with which my father was involved because of the children's theater shenanigans and my magic acts.

I remember of course very clearly the three girls next door (!) and their stage mother who was a loathsome woman and bore the most striking resemblance to Joan Crawford, so much so that she impaired my ability to appreciate and comprehend the work of that greatest of actors because I could not help but think of that high school theater teacher whenever I would come across Johnny Guitar on the late show.

Of course I was in love with two of the girls, but, alas, it was the youngest and most unappealing of the three - a girl who appeared to have such arrested development that she acted ten years old when she was in fact at least fourteen - who relentlessly pursued me, leaving much of my time spent avoiding her clunky, clumsy advances, my eyes set, of course, on the eldest who looked like a twin of Cybil Shepard and who was so enigmatic and arousing compared to everybody else around her. But their mother kept such a hold over them. In her authoritarian style, she was the most anti-1970s parent imaginable.

One of her favorite subjects was the relative unimportance of sexual matters and how deeply offended she was by the spectacle of males with their shirts off in Florida and how it was practically immoral to subject others to such exposure. I was always trying to play up to her and agree with her, thinking it would get me an advantage with her daughters that my friendliness would dissolve her guard. It was never to be. One time I was forced to take a state wide trip in a station wagon convertible with her and her girls. It was about a four hour trip and all four hours of it consisted of her preaching about the loose morals and values of the young. And this from a drama teacher!

During the holidays these people would drift in and out of our house without any apparent pattern or time. There was little sense of when meals were to start. What there was a sense of was the presence of adult intruders who were nevertheless invited.

Without a doubt the most colorful of these theater type friends was one Bobby Larue. I had never met anyone quite like Bobby Larue. He both frightened and fascinated me.

My sensory system was compromised by his personal effects. Here was a man, apparently without family or relatives, who would come over with a gold lame or faux leopard kind of cape (be aware that we are in the state of Florida) and for the bottom some kind of elephant bell denim slacks with contrast stitching in rust. Most shocking of all, he wore a different ring on every finger. He also had a very wide coiffed toupee with which he would fidget while conversing. I had never seen anything like it in real life other than the Liberace television specials which I was forced to watch and which I deeply hated (having fantasies of all the pianists I'd really prefer to be watching, if only the networks had the class and taste to feature them).

I remember Bobby LaRue had one obsession to which he would keep referring and returning and that was his idol Charles Nelson Reilly. He would go on forever about the virtues of Reilly, why Charles Nelson Reilly should win every award, and be given every role, how he was so much better a performer than Paul Newman or Robert Redford, and how there was no justice in the world as long as Charles Nelson Reilly was relegated to the ghetto of comedy.

Bobby LaRue was one of the first encounters I had with genuine aesthetic disagreement. I remember when I first got a little upright piano. It was a Baldwin and was the first piano, or instrument, to which I ever had access. I had not yet had the advantage of a teacher. Out of frustration I would try and play keys to make musical sense. And I would do this for an hour or so, quietly so as not to bother anyone. Yet I was also listening a lot to the Miles Davis album Kind Of Blue, trying to duplicate on that piano the sounds I was hearing, but to complete failure, plunking my hands on the keyboard in frustration at my inability to hear well.

I tried to share my interests once at a Christmas party at which LaRue was present. I tried to praise Miles Davis and my father dismissed the music as heroin music "because it was played so slow it made you think they were on heroin when they played it" a reductionism that made me so angry. This was when Bobby Larue would become larger than life (as if he hadn't already started out that way) and complain that he "hated Miles Davis". That "was not real music". Real music was classic show music. (To be fair my father did at times like Miles Davis, but still claimed the music, at least in the fifties, was modeled after certain drugs). I remember his litany of virtues that told us when something was valuable: "it entertains, it makes you feel, it makes you cry, it makes you laugh."

Bobby LaRue was hopeless when it came to my musical tastes. He told me "real music" was Robert Goulet. And it was Julie Andrews and, after crossing himself, Ethel Merman and Judy Garland. I was not one to disagree with this list per se, though I was not crazy about Goulet.

I also made the mistake of saying I liked Paul Lynde, and Bobby Larue would get irritated, saying that Charles Nelson Reilly was more wholesome and for the whole family, and funnier. Like my neighbors, here was another plea for the family, for the virtuous and the wholesome. This immediately set up a feud comparing Paul Lynde and Charles Nelson Reilly. Since I was a child I had little say in defending Paul Lynde.

I have little idea who Bobby LaRue was and from where he had come. My mother said that he used to be hit at dinner theaters across Florida, in his youth. I know he spoke with an exaggerated tone of voice and his presence always seemed an irritant because I was shocked that any man would leave the house dressed as he did and felt equally terrorized and mesmerized by all those ten or so rings, holding a glass of scotch, the kind of glass with little avocado or chartreuse daisies printed all over it.

The only matter on which we could agree was the soundtrack to A Chorus Line which he loved and would always assent when I offered to play it. I was always in charge of the record player; the one time I had any say over the music, when not hostage to my mother's favorite radio station.

My parents had an unusual system for gift giving. Basically I was given a certificate to the local record shop where I would buy a five dollar album. I could always pick the album and it was invariably some kind of jazz-rock fusion like Chick Corea and Return to Forever, or much to the chagrin of my parents, late Miles Davis in his early 1970s electric period. I never knew what a record was going to sound like since we never heard any radio but what my mother played. I went merely by what Downbeat had advertised and if I liked the graphics in the advertising, the more outrageous (the trumpeter lying on a sofa in the shape of red lips, a bassist in a cape flying through the air etc.) the better. The record would be a Christmas present.

My mother had a penchant for an easy listening radio station called JOY. And she would play that station practically 24/7, even while in her office at work. This was one reason why I had such little access to other radio. Sometimes I liked the arrangements, but more often I did not. Worse, I would argue against the music, attack and criticize the selections, getting great pleasure from hurting my mother in this way, perhaps as revenge for having to listen to it, perhaps out of darker motives from within.

Always on Christmas Eve the three of us would put ornaments on the tree. I loved that tree because it was a thick and fluffy white tree and made me feel special whilst living in Florida. My father would try and be clairvoyant or psychic and guess what was in his wrapped presents and he was always right, much to the chagrin of my mother, who felt offended and violated by his accuracy. It made me for a time a true believer in all things clairvoyant.

He would place his right hand on the wrapped present and list what was within. "Shoes, grey socks, a book on Houdini, hardware tools, sky blue tie, umm.. Adidas sweater that zips up...I think it has brown stripes down the side of the arms..." he would rattle off, while feeling the wrapped presents for the appropriate vibes and divining, gleaning the surprise within. In cumulative anger over the years my mother eventually dispensed with all wrapping and said "here" with her rough, masculine grunt, that only she can summon, and dumped a bunch of unwrapped items on the floor at his feet.

The holidays too were a time for great religiosity. Not, of course in my household, never, that is, unless my preacher uncle was in town which was a rare invitation. (Indeed he wasn't invited; he just showed up suddenly, unannounced). But rather, all around us, in the Jesus and the Devil cartoon tracts, the Biblical bumper stickers, the presence of many thick men with fixed grins and abundant jowls, ready with a handshake and offer of Jesus for your troubles.

And that about "wraps up" my memories of the holidays from my childhood.

Here is a gem from Paul Lynde:

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